On Wednesday, Day 87 of the D.C. statehood constitutional convention, the assembled delegates wrestled with choices for the name of America's would-be 51st state: Would it be Columbia? Potomac? Anacostia? Or Utopia?
"Utopia," suggested a half-smiling delegate Chestie Marie Graham, a D.C. schools counselor, "reflects our great anticipation of our hopes . . . our dreams . . . and this is a most fitting name for our future."
No, protested delegate Samuel W. Robinson, a food stamp administrator. "We have enough in our constitution that is already unorthodox without going further."
The constitution-in-progress already contains a grab-bag of provisions that some delegates call utopian. On Wednesday, for instance, the delegates voted that all citizens of the new state are guaranteed the right to jobs. Or, if unable to work, citizens are assured enough income to meet basic needs.
"The State of Utopia" proposal was soundly defeated as were a number of other suggested names, leaving the issue undecided until last night when "New Columbia" edged out "Anacostia" by a solid seven-vote margin.
There had been other, less serious, proposals. "Maybe we should name the state Oliver Carr," joked Delegate Absalom Jordan Jr., the city's unemployment compensation director, referring to the powerful real estate developer who has built much of the city's downtown.
So it went on Wednesday, a day like the others, mixing serious, passionate debate about American democracy, personal insults and jokes, majestic oratory and the not-so-majestic, and, throughout, a sense that somehow history was being made -- even if it was slowed when the copying machine suffered heat prostration at 9 p.m.
It is heady stuff for some delegates, like Brian P. Moore, an unemployed health administrator from Ward 2 who attends, after his daily job-hunting rounds, to debate how his new state could improve on the U.S. constitution by guaranteeing its citizens even more rights than other Americans. "It's been fascinating," Moore said. " . . . It's as if we are really trying to say something new."
The statehood movement, with historic roots in the 1800s and a boost in momentum from the 1960s civil rights struggles, has found its way to the ninth floor of a downtown office building at 929 E St. NW.
Here, a chapter of that history is gaveled out in a small auditorium filled with gray tables, plastic chairs, forests of papers, coffee cups, soda cans, magazines and newspapers.
The delegates, a diverse sampling of 45 District of Columbia citizens, are attempting to translate the long-held dream of statehood into the nuts-and-bolts of building a new government within 90 days on a $150,000 budget.
The elected delegates are black and white; middle class, rich and poor; the dungareed and the buttoned-down; lawyers, cabbies, communists, socialists, Republicans, politicians and programmers, bureaucrats and community activists, gays, students, teachers and retirees.
"You know, 75 percent of these people would never have each other in their living rooms," said a convention worker, who politely asked not to be named. "It's the most diverse group of people you could imagine. Some of them are totally off the wall, but they all seem to really care."
"I think the process is going remarkably well," said Charles I. Cassell, a white-bearded architect and long-time statehood advocate who presides over the convention. Resting his gavel during a break, Cassell remarked, "We have brought together a group of intelligent, committed people here. We have only a few dummies, and even they are getting smarter."
Day 87 was relatively mellow, according to observers, possibly because Day 86 had been turbulent and dragged on from 5:20 p.m. to 2:55 a.m., leaving delegates too weary for heavy combat the next day. Cassell only had to complain once that the shouting "hurts my ears." There was none of the shoving or pushing that erupted once last month, and the only casualties this day were the D.C. flag, which got knocked over during parliamentary hubbub, and delegate Barbara Lett Simmons, the outspoken D.C. school board member, who fell out of her chair with a crash while trying to change shoes during debate.
Simmons, who often snaps photographs with a pocket camera to record the proceedings, was unhurt. She even kept talking from a reclining position on the linoleum floor, until Cassell ruled out of order any comments delivered "under the table."
During a break, delegate and City Council member David A. Clarke (D-Ward 1) worried aloud that while the constitution articulated noble goals, it might be considered so impractical that city voters and Congress would reject it.
"I don't believe this is supposed to be a repository for every liberal idea that is known to man," said Clarke.
Many specific liberal proposals have won approval by a wide margin. "We have people here who represent poor and minorities, and the forgotten people," said Janette Hoston Harris, a delegate who teaches black history at the University of the District of Columbia. "So you have people who are going to make sure that everyone's rights are protected. Unless you are specific about guaranteeing those rights, you know they can be lost."
"Where the U.S. Constitution has proven inadequate, we have to do it ourselves," Cassell told the delegates. He said he believes city voters will approve the new document despite possible reservations about specifics.
Transcripts record the votes and debates, but not the statehood convention menu.
In a makeshift kitchen adjoining the makeshift convention hall, Thelma Blackwell, 48, a grandmother of five from the Petworth neighborhood, is the self-appointed statehood cook. Blackwell, a paralegal who is not a delegate, shows up almost every night to cook dinner for the entire convention on her electric frypan. On Day 87, for example, she prepared sweet-and-sour chicken, pork and veal, with Japanese vegetables, for $3.
"This is my contribution to statehood," she said. "It's better to eat wholesome food. We have to stay healthy to run the government, and they probably can think more clearly too," after a good meal.
Statehood is important to her, she said, "because in 48 years, I have never enjoyed what my Daddy did in Dallas, Texas. He had a whole different view of politics and freedom, because I was born in a stateless society -- because I can't have the opportunity for voicing an opinion that counts. But a person in the other 50 states can actually feel they are being heard. I don't feel that. We are a voiceless society here. But it's not going to last forever."
In the final days of the convention, Blackwell is compiling the "Official D.C. Statehood Cookbook" which she hopes to publish. She collects each delegate's favorite recipes, she said, and the menu is quite diverse.